Jonestown, Guyana was the scene of one of the most harrowing tragedies in American history. On November 18, 1978, at the direction of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones, 909 members of the People's Temple died, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in a "revolutionary suicide." They included over 200 murdered children. The poisonings in Jonestown followed the murder of five others, including Congressman Leo Ryan, by Temple members at the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. It was the largest mass suicide in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until September 11, 2001.
Jones had established the Peoples Temple, a Christian sect, in Indianapolis in the 1950s, preaching against racism, and attracting many African Americans. After moving to San Francisco in 1971, his church was increasingly accused of financial fraud, physical abuse of its members and mistreatment of children. The paranoid Jones then moved his Temple to Guyana, to build a socialist utopia at Jonestown. A group of former Temple members and concerned relatives of current members convinced Congressman Ryan to investigate the settlement in person.
On November 17, 1978, Ryan arrived in Jonestown with a group of journalists and other observers. At first the visit went well, but the next day, as Ryan's delegation was about to leave, several Jonestown residents approached the group and asked them for passage out of Guyana. Jones became distressed at the defection of his followers, and one of Jones' lieutenants attacked Ryan with a knife.
The Congressman escaped from the incident unharmed, but Jones then ordered Ryan and his companions ambushed and killed at the airstrip as they attempted to leave. The Congressman and four others were murdered as they boarded their charter planes. Back in Jonestown, Jones commanded everyone to gather in the main pavilion. The youngest members of the Peoples Temple were the first to die, as parents and nurses used syringes to drop a potent mix of cyanide, sedatives and powdered fruit juice, similar to Kool-Aid, into children's throats. Adults then drank the concoction while armed guards surrounded the pavilion.
Richard Dwyer was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Guyana when the tragedy took place. In his oral history, he recounts the prelude to the massacre, how he pretended to be dead when shot at the airstrip, and how he dealt with the subsequent harrowing events.
"I decided that I would play dead"
DWYER: We arrived at the pavilion to find Congressman Ryan standing shaken, with blood all over his shirt, and another young man being held by members of the People's Temple.
What had happened apparently was that this young man had approached Ryan from behind with a knife, grabbed him from the back and put the knife to his throat and said that he was going to kill him. A couple of the People's Temple members and one of the lawyers grabbed the guy and wrestled him to the ground. In the process the young man's hand was cut and be bled all over Ryan's shirt.
Congressman Ryan was shaken obviously but still very much in command of himself. He and I walked aside and he asked, "What do we do now?"
I said, "Congressman, I am not sure what I'm doing, but I want you out of here right now as fast as we can."
He said, "Will you stay and see about the people who want to come back?"
And I said, "Yes, I would." Looking back at it I shudder to think about it. But in any event, my main concern was getting him out of there....
The airplane was facing south and the engines were running. Ryan started to walk towards the aircraft when a farm tractor pulled on to the field towing a farm cart with wooden sides going up two or three feet.... The tractor pulled on to the field and came down along the side of the tarmac. I turned around to look and as we watched, nine or ten people stood up from the truck and they had various guns....
The Congressman was obviously a target. He and I ran around the front nose of the aircraft. About at that stage the NBC television tape ends with the murder of the cameraman. It was all filmed from the time the firing began. He was obviously a target. I got to the other side of the airplane and decided that there was just no way that I could possibly make it across another 75 yards of open territory and decided that I would play dead.
As I was about to artistically fall to the ground, and indeed I must have almost been on the ground, somebody shot me...with a .22 long. As I later learned I wasn't badly hurt. It had entered my left thigh and lodged up near the spine. It is still there; it is more dangerous to take it out than leave it alone.
Anyway, I was on the ground there. Staccato firing continued for what seemed like a long time but probably couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes. I had thought that the reason I didn't want to run across the tarmac or try to go any further was because I thought we were in a cross-fire between the big truck that was parked on the other side of the tarmac from the tractor. I had thought that we were being fired on from that truck. Later only one other person thought we had been fired on from that truck, so I don't know whether we were or not. Anyway, I was convinced we were and that I would never make it past that truck.
I lay on the ground and the firing stopped. I was trying to pretend that I was dead. I couldn't decide whether I would be more convincing playing dead with my eyes open or closed. Finally, I decided that I at least would like to see those bastards. I heard feet on the loose stones of the dirt on the tarmac and a shotgun went off. More steps and the shotgun went off again. Ryan had obviously been hit more than once....
The shotgun continued for five shots, including right next to me-Ryan. I was waiting for the next shot which never came. To this day I do not know why. I suspect that it was a five-shot shotgun and the last one was used on Ryan.
The steps went away and I lay on the ground until finally I heard the vehicles drive away. There was no conversation, no shouts that I recall.... After a few moments I looked around carefully and there wasn't anybody there.
The Washington Post reporter, who was lying not far from me and I knew had done the same thing as I had, played doggo, Charles Kraus, got up. I walked around to the Congressman. He had been shot, obviously, more than once. Probably with a rifle, but the better part of his face had been blown away with the shotgun. The cameraman was dead. The photographer from the Hearst newspapers was dead.
Everyone had fled the airplane into the bush and when I went into the airplane, Mrs. Parks, Dale Parks' mother, was sitting in a seat near the door with most of her head blown away by a shotgun blast at short range. Her face was still there but there was nothing behind it. It was incredible.
We had wounded all over the place. Jackie Spears had been badly hurt. A couple of the NBC cameramen had been badly hurt. My immediate concern was that these people could come back and finish the job. Why they didn't finish the job I don't know. I guess the fact was that they were not very good at anything. We carried the wounded over to the tall grass and hid them as much as we could. It wasn't too good as you could see the tracks going into the grass....
[The news crew] was in absolute shock. Everyone there had cameras, but not one of them pulled them out. The cameraman was killed, his audio guy had half of his arm shot away. The anchorman for the NBC production that had interviewed Jones, etc., had obviously been a target. He had been killed. Bob Flick the producer of the show was just absolutely stunned. He had worked with this crew through Vietnam and various war zones among other places, and was just absolutely crushed that here in this rinky-dink country's backwoods he had lost a major part of his crew.
The "White Night" Rehearsal for Death
The White Night, I learned, had been a rehearsal for death that Jones would have people go through a number of times in the middle of the night. He would get everybody out of bed by the loudspeakers and they would come in and he would harangue them and pass them Kool-Aid or some such drink and tell them that it was poison. They would drink it....
We waited, waited, and waited. The shooting had occurred about 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon and...we had nothing but the first aid kit on the airplane to try and bandage these people with. We found a nurse from a dispensary. She brought down all the morphine tablets she had; there weren't many. We were giving some people rum, but I was concerned. Obviously they were going to need a lot of medical attention and I was afraid to give them too much morphine or too much rum, even though they were in severe pain. Amazing though how little complaint there was, it was just incredible....
All this time we did not know what had gone on at Jonestown, except for one or two people who had gotten away and came back with stories saying that they were all dead -- killing themselves. But this came with a story that one of the people in our group told me, that they had made a tank at Jonestown which was hidden in the woods -- all kinds of rumors....
By this time it was almost dusk again. We flew into a small airport.... The Ambassador came over and debriefed me. I learned of the murders of Sharon Amos and her children at the People's Temple headquarters in Georgetown. Apparently there had been instructions that everybody down there would kill themselves....
Nine hundred bodies on the ground, beginning to decompose The most difficult decision that the Ambassador had to make at that time was what to do with the bodies up at Jonestown. The Guyanese government had come to him with the request that the bodies be taken back to the United States. John Burke quite correctly went back to Washington asking for instructions on how to do it....
On Sunday evening, just as I was leaving, the military went in to Jonestown and discovered, of course, that the worst had come to pass and there were 900 odd bodies lying on the ground in the tropical heat already beginning to decompose.
The options were fairly limited. One of the major things to do was try to identify the bodies. And I believe they had brought back to Jonestown a couple of the People's Temple members who went around and tried to identify the bodies, as many as they knew. They tagged them all. The Air Force came in with crews to take the bodies back.
The big question always came back to the fact: did these people in Jonestown kill themselves and commit suicide or were they forced to do so? Obviously under any criteria of any common law, children can't commit suicide voluntarily, so there is no question that the children were murdered. And they were murdered by their parents and their relatives.
But on balance I am still convinced that the great majority of these people did in fact kill themselves. There were only one or two there, including Jim Jones, with bullet wounds. Some had injections of cyanide, but there was no way of telling whether these injections had been forced or not.
Also, they had swallowed cyanide as well in many cases. So you didn't know whether these had been injections to hurry on what they had already started or what have you.
And I was struck a year or two later by an article in The New York Times Magazine that reported on a woman who very much regretted that she had not been there. She had been in the United States for some reason, but she still regretted that she had not been there to take her own life with her colleagues.
So I think my personal thing, my biggest mental anguish came from the children. These were children I had watched playing and had played with just hours before they were to be killed by their parents.